Will Murphy’s Pledge of $13.5M, Scientific Expertise to Fight Algae Blooms Do Any Good?

Jon Hurdle | November 19, 2019 | Energy & Environment, Water
Enviros say modest funding won’t stop lakes clogging again next summer unless towns step up
Alge bloom on lakeCredit: Creative Commons
Algae blooms like this one kept New Jersey residents from swimming or fishing in some lakes this summer.

New Jersey’s lakes are likely to be choked with toxic algae again next summer, despite Gov. Phil Murphy’s pledge on Monday to spend $13.5 million and deploy cutting-edge science to fix the problem, environmentalists said.

The new state and federal funding can’t be expected to replace a significant number of leaking septic tanks or keep animal waste out of waterways, let alone persuade thousands of homeowners to stop fertilizing their lawns — all factors that contribute to the spread of algae, known as Harmful Algae Blooms, or HABs.

The new measures also won’t roll back climate change, which has warmed waters such as those of Lake Hopatcong to the point at which the naturally occurring algae can flourish when combined with the contaminants driven into lakes by stormwater runoff, the naturalists said.

Rating Murphy’s fix: ‘fat chance’

“My first two thoughts are: good luck, and fat chance,” said Bill Kibler, director of policy at Raritan Headwaters, a nonprofit that works to protect water quality in the Raritan watershed of Somerset, Morris and Hunterdon counties.

Kibler welcomed the governor’s effort to solve the problem, but said there are no short-term fixes for the deep-seated problems that have caused the algae blooms.

Since the algae occurs naturally, and climate change can only be curbed through global action, the only cause that conceivably remains within New Jersey’s power to control is the runoff that feeds the blooms, Kibler said.

“We didn’t get in this situation with stormwater runoff overnight and we’re not going to get out of it overnight,” he said.

Stormwater utilities, the best solution

The best solution to the runoff problem, Kibler said, would be to create a stormwater utility to raise revenue that could be used to address contributing problems like leaking septic systems, and to educate homeowners and farmers on the need to reduce fertilizer use.

To be effective, a stormwater utility should operate regionally rather than on the level of a municipality, which may lack the money or expertise to solve the problem or on the level of the state, which may not have the local knowledge, Kibler said. At Lake Hopatcong, for example, pollution from stormwater runoff could only be meaningfully curbed by the cooperation of the townships that abut the lake, he said.

In his announcement, Murphy said $2.5 million would be used for HAB management grants, including treatment and prevention demonstration projects. The Department of Environmental Protection will issue requests for proposals in December.

A further $1 million will be available starting in December for local projects that control “nonpoint” pollution such as fertilizer use that contributes to the blooms.

And the state will offer a total of $10 million in principle-forgiveness grants to pay for the upgrade of sewers and stormwater systems.

The initiative will also bring together experts to test and treat for algae in what Murphy called “the absolute best cutting-edge science.”

Algae ‘summits’ promised

The governor promised to hold two or three algae “summits” before Memorial Day next year, as part of an effort to improve the state’s communication on the issue, and to hold monthly working group meetings hosted by the DEP.

“We want to get out ahead of this, we want to make sure it’s safe, and that we’re taking the steps collectively ahead of time,” Murphy said after meeting with state and federal lawmakers and local officials near Lake Hopatcong.

There were 39 confirmed and 70 suspected blooms in New Jersey this year, more than in the previous two years, according to the Governor’s Office. Many lakes were completely or partially closed because of the blooms.

U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat from New Jersey’s 5th District, where blooms hit Greenwood Lake last summer, said the measures will be good for the environment, the economy and the health and safety of people who use the lakes. “It’s a win-win-win,” he said in a statement after the meeting with Murphy and other lawmakers.

The funding and expertise newly provided by the state are designed to help municipalities begin to address a problem that is legitimately their responsibility, argued Elliott Ruga, director of policy and communications at the nonprofit Highlands Coalition.

Municipalities’ part of the problem

He said that municipalities have for decades allowed acres of impervious surface to be created as part of development and that fosters the runoff that contribute to the algae blooms, and they must now find a way to stop it.

“The governor has told the communities that that state will help the problem but is not going to solve it for them,” Ruga said. “The communities are going to have to do their share and raise funding as well. This is a combination of warming climate and poor land-use decisions over the past 40 years.”

If they accept that the algae blooms represent an emergency, especially for people who earn their living from lake-based tourism, then municipalities may have to accept the need to raise money to fix their sewer and stormwater problems, he said.

Lake-users are likely to see algae blooms again in coming summers unless communities find ways of curbing runoff, Ruga said. “This year was the first of maybe a permanent presence unless we start retrofitting our hardscape with green stormwater mechanisms.”